Tag Archives: disinformation

Garbage in, garbage out

Every now and again the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) holds a seminar to which it invites outside ‘experts’. It then publishes a report on what was said, minus any names so you don’t know who was involved. I never get invited to these (I’m either insufficiently expert or prone to saying the wrong things), but I do get sent the reports. The latest volume arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago, and I have finally gotten around to reading it. Its title is ‘Who Said What? The Security Challenges of Modern Disinformation’, and it summarizes the results of a seminar held in Ottawa last November.

Those of you who have been following discussions of this subject over the past few years will probably need to read no further than the title. You’ll already know what’s in the report: Western democracy is under threat from ‘Russian disinformation’, as the Russian Federation uses RT, internet trolls, Facebook, Twitter, and the like to subvert our populations’ faith in their own media and governments and to support Russia’s nefarious international policies. ‘Who Said What?’ does spend a little bit of time talking about other countries, specifically China and the Philippines, but the majority of the report is clearly focused on Russia since, as the Executive Summary claims, ‘The most skilled national purveyor of falsehoods is Russia.’ According to the report, Russia:

directs an extensive network of Internet trolls and bot networks which generate and spread material across the web. Their activities are intensified by the support of diplomats, state-controlled media outlets such as RT and Sputnik … Working together, these agents of the Russian state can create a false story and ensure it reaches the segment population most likely to be influenced by it through Facebook, Twitter, and other channels. They also appear to corroborate the story through news agency interviews featuring phoney experts, forged documents, and doctored photos and videos. … Russia stands out for its highly organised strategy of using disinformation to interfere with the political systems of other countries. … Operations against Western populations aim to weaken resistance to Russian state objectives. In supporting Syria, Russia has used disinformation to cover the brutality of its attacks on civilian populations. … Russian disinformation machinery is explicitly weaponised as a resource for future wars, weakening a target country’s sense of danger and diminishing the will to resist.

This is all fairly boilerplate stuff which has been said many times. What marks this report out, though, is some of the more extreme statements which accompany it, which give an indication of the type of experts CSIS has seen fit to invite. Take, for instance, the following paragraph:

No good interest is served by representing the Kremlin’s activities as Russia versus the West. In fact, the Kremlin’s main adversary has always been, and still is, Russia itself. Virtually every type of action it has undertaken against the West was first implemented in Russia, against the Russian people, and against Russia’s many ethnic, national, and religious minorities.

Hmm. I’d be interested to see the evidence backing this claim, particularly the idea that the Kremlin views Russia’s minorities as ‘adversaries’. Certainly, one doesn’t get the impression that this particular ‘expert’ is a neutral academic researcher. The same could be said of the author of the next set of comments who remarks first that ‘Russia’s current disinformation campaign against the West is more dangerous and sophisticated than ever before’, and second that ‘Every Russian citizen … is now part of a centralized vertical responsible for the state’s information security.’ The second statement is a particularly bold claim, conjuring up a picture of Russia as a totalitarian state in which every citizen is participating as a robotic arm of the Kremlin’s information machine, a quite bizarre image for which no evidence is produced.

Other extreme claims include one that, ‘Coupled with breath-taking militarism … Russia’s measures in the domain of information security have transformed Kaliningrad into a laboratory for testing future warfare’. Another states that it is a ‘myth’ that Russia is fighting terrorism (including ISIS) in Syria, and also says that Russia’s military campaign in Syria was carried out with ‘great brutality and immense suffering. Far from shortening the war, it exacerbated it’. The report then goes on to say that ‘the verified proof … suggests that the Assad government and its allies, including Russia, did indeed have a policy of targeting Syria’s hospitals’. And so on.

Of course, one may wonder how it can be that ‘the verified proof … suggests’. Proof proves. It doesn’t ‘suggest’. And one may wonder also who is doing the disinformation here. Is it the Russians, or is it CSIS’s experts?

At the end of the chapter about Russia and Syria, the report says that ‘What is required is an approach that empowers individuals not only to discover information about Putin’s war in Syria, but also to verify the information themselves.’ I’m all for allowing people to verify information. But that requires them to have access to a large variety of different sources, including those which challenge one another. Yet in a later chapter about Ukraine, somebody who is clearly a member of the Ukrainian organization Stop Fake relates with some satisfaction that, ‘An important step in disconnecting Ukrainians from Russia’s propaganda pipeline was the removal from air of 75 Russian TV channels’ as well as ‘a decree blocking Russian social networks from operating in Ukraine.’ It appears that allowing people ‘to verify the information themselves’ does not include allowing them to verify the claims of those who are hostile to Russia; in fact people must be prevented from doing so.

Interestingly, the only attempt to define disinformation in this report is a sentence which says, ‘Disinformation … is aggressive marketing of information in support of political objectives.’ This is a very odd definition. ‘Marketing of information in support of political objectives’ is what all politicians and political actors do all the time. By this definition, all politics, all diplomacy, everything, is disinformation. It doesn’t even matter if what the Russians are saying is true. They are marketing information for political purposes, and that cannot be tolerated.

The reason it can’t be tolerated is because the West is good and Russia is bad. This is an objective truth which cannot be contested. The report notes that, ‘Certain truths need to be inculcated in each generation, first among them that there is such a thing as truth – that there is an objective reality that cannot be wished away.’ I agree that there is an objective reality. The Syrian Arab Army dropped a barrel bomb full of chlorine on Douma. Or it didn’t. Both statements can’t be true. But it’s a bit like Schrodinger’s cat. We don’t know the truth until we observe it. And in a lot of cases, especially those concerning international politics, we don’t ever get to observe it, or at least any more than a small part of it, and we have to draw conclusions based on limited, often unreliable, information. And then, we have to decide which information is important, and which isn’t, and decide how to fit it all together into a coherent narrative. At that point biases inevitably come into play and ‘truth’ starts becoming a lot more subjective. In such circumstances, what’s dangerous is not a multiplicity of competing narratives, but rather people who set themselves up as holders of the absolute truth and seek to control information in order to stop others getting hold of ‘untruth’. That is the path to totalitarianism.

Alas, there’s more than a whiff of that in this report. About the only restrained element in the document is a chapter on Brexit which concludes that, ‘Analyses of the Brexit botnet did not find strong evidence of widespread “fake news” dispersion.’ Otherwise, the experts consulted by CSIS adopt extreme positions and are so certain of the truth of their own narratives, despite (or perhaps because of) their extreme nature, that they are intolerant of alternatives.

For sure, there’s an awful lot of garbage on the internet, as well as on television, and in our newspapers. But I’m not inclined to trust those who would appoint themselves guardians of what I should and should not read, especially since my own research indicates to me that a lot of what they say is garbage too.

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Not a ‘useful idiot’

I’m disappointed. Crushed even. The European Values think tank has just produced a report entitled The Kremlin’s Platform for Useful Idiots in the West: An Overview of RT’s Editorial Strategy and Evidence of Impact. The report contains a spreadsheet with the names of 2327 ‘useful idiots’, that is to say people who have appeared on RT and, says the report, ‘either due to unawareness of RT’s political agenda, or indeed explicit support of it, lend their names and credibility to a pseudo-news network and proxy agent of the Kremlin.’ And what do you know? I’m not on the list! In fact, I’ve appeared on RT twice, once on their news section, and once on Crosstalk, but for some reason they don’t seem to have bothered analyzing the Crosstalk guest list, so I’ve slipped through the cracks. I’m not a ‘useful idiot’ after all, and have been deprived of the opportunity to express moral outrage at being publicly named and shamed.

So much for the methodology of the European Values think tank, a Czech-based organization which runs something called ‘Kremlin Watch’, described as ‘a strategic program … which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against Western democracies.’ Let’s take a more detailed look at the report on the Kremlin’s useful idiots.

The report begins by saying ‘RT’s raison d’être is to denigrate the West at all costs and undermine public confidence in the viability of liberal democracy. On these grounds, RT categorically qualifies as a Kremlin disinformation outfit.’ This confuses a bunch of separate things. Yes, I think it’s probably fair to say that RT does denigrate the West reasonably often, but that doesn’t mean that denigration is its ‘raison d’être’; rather, it’s a tool for some other objective, namely convincing people that the Western narrative is incorrect, and so making them more amenable to a Russian narrative. Second, denigration of certain aspects of Western life and policy is categorically not the same as trying to ‘undermine public confidence in the viability of liberal democracy.’ Lots of political actors within the West criticize things about their societies. If they didn’t, they would hardly be democracies! Denigration is part of democratic discourse, not a way of destroying it. And third, none of the above means that RT is a ‘disinformation outfit.’ Denigrating the West and attacking liberal democracy, even if true, are again categorically not the same as disinformation, for the very simple reason that one can denigrate pretty well using the truth. Is it the case that RT has on occasion run stories which have turned out to be untrue. Yes. Is that true of Western media too? Yes. Are most RT stories untrue? As far as I am aware, nobody has ever produced any evidence to say that they are. To make the claim that RT is a source of disinformation, you need to do proper quantitative analysis of its output. This hasn’t been done, so the claim is not founded on proper research. Furthermore, while it may be that RT is selecting a certain segment of the truth, and not other segments, that’s bias, it’s not ‘disinformation.’

Next, the report says: ‘RT’s epistemology is rooted in the denial of the very possibility of objective, verifiable truth.’ Here, we’re into an interesting philosophical area. Personally, I think that there is an objective truth. Either I got up this morning and wrote this blog post, or I didn’t. However, our ability to know the truth is very limited. Facts are disputed, and what those facts mean is subject to multiple interpretations. We are also human beings, subject to a vast number of cognitive biases, which means that none of us is entirely objective. We can aspire to be so, but we will never achieve it. I’m a great fan of Richards J. Heuer’s book Psychology of Intelligence Analsysis, published by the CIA and available online. In this Heuer remarks:

Analysts do not achieve objective analysis by avoiding preconceptions; that would be ignorance or self-delusion. Objectivity is achieved by making basic assumptions and reasoning as explicit as possible so that they can be challenged by others and analysts can, themselves, examine their validity.  … [one view is that] objectivity requires the analyst to suppress any personal opinions or preconceptions, so as to be guided only by the “facts” of the case. To think of analysis in this way overlooks the fact that information cannot speak for itself. The significance of information is always a joint function of the nature of the information and the context in which it is interpreted. The context is provided by the analyst in the form of a set of assumptions and expectations concerning human and organizational behavior. These preconceptions are critical determinants of which information is considered relevant and how it is interpreted. … The question is not whether one’s prior assumptions and expectations influence analysis, but only whether this influence is made explicit or remains implicit.

In other words, don’t kid yourself that you can be objective. You can’t. What matters is whether your biases are made explicit or are hidden. So, there’s absolutely nothing wrong in RT saying it isn’t objective. In fact, that’s a good thing, as it makes its biases open. By contrast, media outlets who pretend to be objective are deceiving their readers and viewers. Obviously, as with so many things, this is contestable. One can have a long and detailed debate about the validity of RT’s epistemology; but it’s not necessarily incorrect, and certainly not inherently anti-democratic or designed to disinform.

Next, the report claims that, ‘RT disguises the malicious objectives of this editorial strategy by claiming to uphold traditional liberal-democratic ideals like free speech, critical journalism, and independent thought.’ Note how the word ‘malicious’ is thrown in here. This is a value judgement placed in the middle of what claims to be a factual statement. Where is the ‘objectivity’ here? Besides that, there is something a little creepy about denouncing people because they claim to ‘uphold traditional liberal-democratic ideals’. If the report’s authors think this is false, then they need to provide a detailed analysis showing that that there is no ‘free speech, critical journalism, and independent thought’ on RT. Have they done this? Have they asked RT’s guests whether they are told what to say, or cut off if they say something wrong (the answer in my experience is no and no). Have they done a thorough analysis of all RT’s reports to see if there is any ‘critical journalism’ (actually, there’s a lot, and that’s what this report doesn’t like – RT’s journalism is too ‘critical’). And have they done a quantitative analysis proving that there’s no independent thought, that people on RT just parrot the identical line all the time? No they haven’t. Perhaps all these claims are true, but there is no solid data in the report to back it up.

In fact, the report reveals quite the opposite. It says that, ‘RT uses guest appearances by Western politicians, journalists and writers, academics, and other influential public personalities to boost its credibility.’ It then provides the name of 2,327 of these guests. But look who they include:

  • Among American politicians, such well known Kremlin stooges as Dick Cheney, Wesley Clark, Jon Huntsman, Joe Lieberman, Michael Morrell, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Ryan, and James Woolsey.
  • Among British politicians, such obvious Putin puppets as Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, Martin Bell, Boris Johnson, David Owen, Jack Straw and John Prescott
  • Among European and international politicians, Kofi Anan, Ehud Barak, Helen Clark, Dominique de Villepin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Hamid Karzai, Romano Prodi, Dima Rousseff, and a bunch of others who obvious only ever spout Kremlin talking points.
  • Among journalists, a whole bunch of peoples whose names I don’t mostly recognize, but does include another well-known non-independent American Larry King, who actually hosts a show on RT
  • And among academics/experts, the likes of Richard Dawkins, Alan Dershowitz, Daniel Drezner, Mark Galeotti, Nina Khrushcheva, Michael O’Hanlon, Daniel Pipes, Angela Stent, and Dmitry Trenin, who are well-known for their incapacity for independent thought and their inability to do anything other than read from their Kremlin cue cards.

Perhaps, as I said, all the accusations about RT could be justified if there was a proper, quantitative analysis of what is said on RT and by who, of how much of RT news is true and how much untrue, etc. In the absence of solid, quantitative, data, all the report is able to produce is a handful of anecdotes about allegedly biased reporting. But a handful of examples doesn’t really prove anything. And in the case of this report, its anecdotes aren’t even very good ones. For instance, it denounces RT’s coverage of the annexation of Crimea because, among other things, RT had the audacity to show pictures of Crimeans happily welcoming Russian troops. And it spends half a page defending the Ukrainian government’s language policies. Now it might well be that RT exaggerates the extent to which these threaten the use of the Russian language, but the report is equally biased in whitewashing the policies as if they aren’t discriminatory at all (which, as seen by recent legislation on language in the media and education, is not the case).

And here is a picture the report shows as evidence of RT’s ‘conspiratorial’ nature.

rt1

What precisely is wrong with this? Academic studies of the American media’s coverage of the issue of Iraqi WMD prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq have shown that the media overwhelmingly accepted the government’s claims that Iraq had WMD and posed a serious threat to US security. There was indeed ‘no second opinion’ in any large-scale sense. And look what happened! Wouldn’t it have been better if there had been more questioning?

According to the report, ‘Appearing on RT is not harmless, it enables and legitimates RT’s subversive agenda. … It is therefore impossible to appear on RT without being ultimately complicit in its efforts to undermine Western democracy and pollute the information space.’ So, in the name of democracy and free speech, we must tell people that they shouldn’t accept invitations to express their view, and we must publish lists of their names and call them ‘useful idiots’ in the hope of shaming them into silence. Does anybody else appreciate the irony?

The Russians are coming!

Macleans magazine, which, roughly speaking, is Canada’s equivalent of Time or Newsweek, has published a couple of articles this week on the topic of the day – Russia.

The longer of the two, entitled ‘The Return of the Tsar’ is fairly innocuous. I have to confess that I’m not quite sure what it’s trying to achieve, apart from expounding some vague cliché about Russians wanting a strong ruler. It’s a fairly typical piece of impressionistic journalism, in which the author wanders around a Russian town, speaks to a few people, and based on a handful of anecdotes infers some broad-sweeping conclusions about the eternal ‘Russian soul’ and the like. By all means read it if you’ve got nothing better to do, but to be frank I don’t think you’ll get much from it.

The other article, by contrast, deserves a long reply, as it exemplifies fairly well what’s wrong with so much commentary on things Russian nowadays. You can get a sense of the thing just from the title: ‘Russia’s Coming Attack on Canada’. Watch out, Canadians, the Russians are coming, author Scott Gilmore warns, starting out by saying:

Moscow has been waging an increasingly daring clandestine war against western democracies. Under the direction of President Vladmir Putin, Russia is targeting most of the major members of the western alliance. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned of Russian attempts at cyber attacks. In France, Moscow has funded right-wing populist Marine Le Pen and is alleged to be spreading false propaganda about her opponents. There are now reports from British parliamentarians that Russia may have meddled with the Brexit campaign. And, of course, Putin’s interference in the U.S. Presidential election has lit a tire fire in Washington that may bring down the Trump administration.

Let’s take a look at this. Gilmore takes a bunch of allegations (Merkel has ‘warned’; Moscow is ‘alleged’ to be targeting Le Pen’s opponents; a single British MP (Ben Bradshaw to be precise) claimed that Brexit was the result of Kremlin interference’, etc), and without producing any evidence to substantiate these allegations uses them to claim that it is a definite fact that ‘Russia is targeting most of the major members of the western alliance.’ But accusations aren’t by themselves evidence. So what proof is there?

Well, according to Suddeutsche Zeitung, the German state security service, the BND, has found that ‘there is no evidence for Putin’s disinformation campaign’.  In France similarly, no evidence of Russian involvement of leaks targeting Francois Fillon has been forthcoming, and it would be odd if it were given that Fillon is considered ‘pro-Russian’. In Britain, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson declared a couple of days ago that ‘We have no evidence the Russians are actually involved in trying to undermine our democratic processes at the moment. We don’t actually have that evidence.’ All the British have, according to Johnson, is ‘evidence that the Russians are capable of doing that,’ which is not at all the same thing. And finally, in the USA, according to a recent report, ‘Even some Democrats on the Intelligence Committee now quietly admit, after several briefings and preliminary inquiries, they don’t expect to find evidence of active, informed collusion between the Trump campaign and known Russian intelligence operatives’.

So much for all that.

Undeterred by the lack of facts to support his thesis, Mr Gilmore nonetheless ploughs on, as follows:

Moscow is being forced to play these aggressive and risky games out of desperation. The country is in bad shape is getting worse. The once great superpower now has an economy smaller than Canada’s and it continues to shrink. … Even the ragtag Ukrainians have fought them to a standstill. Diplomatically, Moscow has never been so isolated and powerless. You can count its friends on one hand, and it’s not an impressive list: Syria, Iran, Belarus.

How true is all this?

To be sure, the Russian economy isn’t in great shape. It has pretty much stagnated over the past 10 years. But it isn’t ‘getting worse’ and it doesn’t ‘continue to shrink’, as Gilmore claims. In fact, the economy has begun to grow again (not by much, to be sure, but growth isn’t shrinking), consumer demand is rising, and inflation is the lowest in post-Soviet history. As for ‘ragtag’ Ukrainians fighting Russia ‘to a standstill’, that is a very odd description of events in Donbass – a more accurate description would be that it was a ‘ragtag’ bunch of rebels (with some help from Moscow) who fought the Ukrainian army to a standstill. And finally, as for Russia’s friends, they go beyond Syria, Iran, and Belarus. What about China, for instance? For sure, Russia has fewer friends than it did a decade ago, but it’s hardly ‘isolated’.

And here we reach a serious contradiction in Gilmore’s thesis – Russia is supposedly at one and the same time ‘powerless’ and a deadly danger. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Nevertheless, the article claims that Canada is likely to be the next target in Russia’s sights. Gilmore writes:

Russia has three objectives as it goes after Canada. The first is to undermine any policies or politicians seen to be against Moscow’s interests. For example, the Russian Embassy has already been trying to discredit Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, an outspoken advocate for continued sanctions, with a smear job about her grandparents. Russia also wants to discredit the broader political system, to undermine Canadians’ faith in “the system”, be it our own election process, our system of government, or parliamentary affairs. Finally, it wants to undermine Canada’s support for our allies, and for the international system including NATO and the United Nations.

All countries try to undermine policies which go against their interests. There isn’t anything odd about that. But the idea that the Kremlin wishes to undermine any ‘politicians seen to be against Moscow’s interests’ is rather problematic in the Canadian context, because that would be just about every politician. Say the Russians were somehow able to discredit the ruling Liberals. What then? They’d just get the Conservatives, who are every bit as Russophobic. Why would that help? Moreover, it’s rather strange to blame the Russian Embassy for the ‘smear job’ about Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather, as the story began not with the Embassy but with independent journalist John Helmer and spread thereafter, without the need for any outside help, via social media. As for whether Russia wants ‘to undermine Canadians’ “faith in the system”,’ that is pure conjecture. And while Russia might indeed wish to undermine NATO, it has repeatedly stressed its desire for an international system resting on the United Nations (UN), blaming Western states for discrediting the UN via actions such as the invasion of Iraq and the 2011 bombing campaign in Libya.

Gilmore’s accusations are unsubstantiated, and frankly more than a little bizarre. What possible good would it do Russia to launch an underground war against Canada? And how on earth could such a weak and ‘powerless’ country actually hope to succeed in a war against such a prosperous and stable proponent? And where is the evidence that it is doing any of this, anyway? It is perhaps more than a little appropriate, therefore, that Gilmore concludes by saying that:

To achieve these goals, Moscow will likely rely on the same methods it has used relatively successfully in the United States and elsewhere. It will spread disinformation—false stories that create confusion around a controversial and heated issue.

‘Disinformation’ and ‘false stories’ – like this one, maybe?